Out of Context

When you are speaking from a mountaintop, you want to make extra certain that you are heard correctly.

In preparation for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington at the end of this month, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial along the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C., is undergoing a small but significant alteration:  A quotation by King that had been etched into the super sized statue of the man himself is being erased.

Why is that?  Because the quotation in question was never spoken by King in the first place.

The line reads, “I Was a Drum Major for Justice, Peace, and Righteousness.”  Including it as part of the four-acre memorial’s feature attraction was the joint decision of the project’s designers, planners and architects, to complement the phrase on the opposite side of the sculpture, “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”

The source of the “drum major” line was a February 1968 sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, during which King intoned, “If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice.  Say that I was a drum major for peace.  I was a drum major for righteousness.  And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

As is hopefully clear from any careful reading, the meaning of this complete thought is starkly different from the spliced-together abbreviation that wound up on King’s monument.  The former demonstrates King’s celebrated eloquence and sense of moral perspective, while the latter, as the poet Maya Angelou tartly put it, “makes [him] look like an arrogant twit.”

And this from a team of folks who admire Dr. King.  Imagine how much fun could have been had if the memorial were the responsibility of his adversaries.

In any event, what this little controversy illustrates is the paramount importance of considering the full context of a given quotation or event in order to properly represent and understand it.

In the American political and celebrity culture, few sentences are more ubiquitous than, “My words were taken out of context.”  Such claims tend to follow reports of the speaker having uttered something racist, sexist or otherwise insensitive or tactless.

Most of the time, of course, these protestations are patently ridiculous, with further investigations proving that the person said and meant precisely what everyone thought.

However, every so often the “out of context” plea rings true, and we owe it to ourselves—we owe it to the truth—to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.  Lives and livelihoods depend on it.

Sticking with events from recent days:  The present pope, Francis I, caused a stir as he returned to Rome from a trip to South America last weekend when, speaking to reporters, he posited, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

Taking that sentence on its own, as some did, one could be forgiven for thinking His Holiness had effectively overturned several millennia of Catholic doctrine on the question of homosexuality.  Has the Catholic Church not made it abundantly clear that it reserves the right to judge people with happy abandon on the basis of their sexual inclinations?

(To wit:  Francis’s immediate predecessor, Benedict XVI, in 2005 called homosexuality “a strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil.”)

As it turns out, however, a more complete reading of the Pope’s statement shows there to be less than meets the eye.  In point of fact, Francis was responding to a question about an alleged “gay lobby” within the Vatican—that is, a group of closeted gay priests who had formed some sort of secret club—to which His Holiness resolutely responded, “A gay lobby isn’t good.”

“The problem isn’t this [homosexual] orientation — we must be like brothers and sisters,” he continued.  “The problem is something else, the problem is lobbying either for this orientation or a political lobby or a Masonic lobby.”  In short, he offered, one must “distinguish between a person who is gay and someone who makes a gay lobby.”

This may well be a more nuanced, conciliatory attitude toward gay people than those by popes past—some have argued that this fact, by itself, makes this story newsworthy—but it does not signify a shift in Catholic doctrine, which maintains a prohibition on openly gay clergy and on gay behavior of all sorts (whatever that means).

Compared to the “who am I to judge” excerpt, this is hardly a distinction without a difference.  Like the King quotation removed from its full context, the intended meaning is not merely muddled, but almost entirely reversed.

With the very identity of a religion with one billion adherents at stake, we can scarcely afford not to scrutinize the words of its commander-in-chief with the maximum attention, nuance and care.  Yes, this requires more investigating than one might prefer, and is not helped by a media culture that cannot seem to handle ideas more than one sentence long, but then uncovering the truth is rarely an easy task.

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